Tourist in Afghanistan – part 2

It´s Friday. The sun is shining from a blue sky, as it has done every day but one on this whole trip. Behind me is the Tomb of Massoud, the leader of Mujaheddin for many years and killed by Al-Qaeda in 2001, only two days before September 11. In front of me: the Panjshir Valley. About week earlier I had the pleasure of overlooking another valley, the Bamiyan. Both valleys have of many been described as belonging to the most beautiful places in Afghanistan. And they´re not only places of sheer beauty, they both play an important part in Afghan history.

The Panjshir valley is located about three hours drive north of Kabul. It isn´t far in miles or kilometers but the combination of traffic, checkpoints, innumerous speed bumps and many cities and villages along the way make this an interesting but somewhat slow journey. Alexander the Great was in the Panjshir, and so was Timur Lenk. In more recent history, only the Soviet Union has managed to “control” the valley, and that after Massoud forced the Soviets to a ceasefire – a unique event during the occupation of the 1980s. The Talibans, to take another example, has never managed to conquer the valley, and the reason seems to be spelled Massoud. He was, and still is, an important person and symbol in many parts of Afghanistan but in Panjshir his face is seen everywhere. It is actually hard to find one single moment when you don´t see his picture or image on a car, by the road, on a wall or on a flag. He is seen as a hero not only for his skills in warfare but also for looking after the population in wartimes or building refugee camps for people who were running from the fighting in Kabul. Remains of the refugee camps can still be seen alongside the Panjshir River.

The Bamiyan Valley is in the heart of the country. Bamiyan is in these days synonymous with what happened here in March of 2001. The Taliban forces had taken control over the valley and decided, probably in spite of the pleading from the West, to blow up the ancient Buddha statues standing in two niches in a mountain wall facing the settlements of Bamiyan town. The West was horrified and condemned the action in the same way they later did when Daesh destroyed parts of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

I was 15 years to late to see the Buddha statues, but a few people along the way who saw them, also had issues with them. The Swedish author Jan Myrdal passed by here in the 1950s. He wrote (my translation):

“We´re having chicken. We´re sitting in the dining area in the Bamiyan Hotel, and thru the panorama windows we can see the world´s largest Buddha statues carved out in the mountain wall. The statues are staring at us over the chicken. Bad art doesn´t improve with age and the soulless stare of the statues is at it worst in monumental format. But the valley is stunningly beautiful.”

Two decades earlier, Robert Byron wrote in The Road to Oxiana:

“That Buddha is 174 feet high, and the smaller 115; they stand a quarter of a mile apart. The larger bears traces of a plaster veneer, which was painted red, presumably as a groundwork for the gilt. Neither has any artistic value. But one could bear that; it is their negotiation of sense, the lack of any pride in their monstrous flaccid bulk, that sickens. Even their material is unbeautiful, for the cliff is made, not of stone, but of compressed gravel. […] The result has not even the dignity of labour.”

Byron wasn´t done. He continued:

“The subjects [The Buddha statues] suggest that Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Hellenistic ideas all met at Bamian in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is interesting to have a record of this meeting. But the fruit of it is not pleasant.”

In other words, just because something is old doesn´t necessarily mean it is worth preserving for future generations. I´m not in any way defending the actions of the Talibans, but I find Myrdal´s and Byron´s assessment of the statues interesting considering the international uproar. What neither Myrdal, Byron nor the Talibans knew was that the caves in that mountain wall contained the oldest frescos in the world, dating back some 1500 years.

As of now, there is a debate on how to replace the Buddha statues – if they are to be replaced at all. Given the proper funding, it seems to come down to restore the old statues with the pieces that are still there, building new replicas or creating holograms. Even if the idea of hologram is appealing, it is hard to motivate such a high-tech solution when  the villages in the valley don´t even have electricity. Even at the big hotels, warm water is scarce and only available at certain hours of the day.

On one of our daytrips in and around Bamiyan, history took the backseat. We were taken out to the National park of Band-e Amir Lakes, located an hour and a half outside of Bamiyan. It was a day for the group, enjoying a walk in beautiful nature. The microclimate at the lakes was an appreciated contrast to the dusty and treeless surroundings that we had gotten used to during our time in Afghanistan.

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